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Top Stories This Week in the Chronicle.
October 6, 2006

Four pioneers

by Jason Villemez

Bayard Rustin was not only active in the LGBT rights movement, he was one of the driving forces behind the Civil Rights Movement of the 1950s and �60s. He acted as key advisor to Martin Luther King Jr. in the 1960s, educating King on pacifist resistance and co-organizing the Southern Christian Leadership Council.

Rustin felt compelled to be open about his homosexuality, and informed King that he would resign if it hindered their work. King refused his offer, though the issue was kept quiet and was a feared secret in both the NAACP and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference.

Rustin was forced to resign his seat on the SCLC in 1960 to avoid a morals charge in Congress, and was furthermore scrutinized by Strom Thurmond in the Senate, who alleged that Rustin and King were intimately involved.

Following King�s death, he continued his work as an activist for Freedom House, and promoted ties between the civil rights movement and the Democratic Party. In 1986, he spoke on behalf on New York State gay rights bill, and urged gay and lesbian outreach towards all minorities, to promote unity throughout the entire civil rights struggle.

Sergeant Leonard Matlovich

When Leonard Matlovich became the first openly gay man to grace the cover of Time on September 8, 1975, his story had enlivened both the anti-gay military climate and the gay civil rights struggle.

After coming out six months earlier, Matlovich was discharged from the Air Force after 12 years of impressive service, including three tours in Vietnam which resulted in a Bronze Star, Purple Heart and Air Force Commendation Medal.

The 32-year-old fought against the ruling, taking the case up to the U.S. Court of Appeals, which began a firestorm in press and political circles. A program about his case, Sergeant Matlovich vs. the U.S. Air Force, was aired by NBC as one of the first gay feature stories on broadcast television. Matlovich also graced the covers of multiple national media outlets.

The appeals court eventually overturned the lower court decision to uphold the discharge, and subsequent proceedings led to ordering the sergeant�s reinstatement and $62,000 back pay. However, the court ruled not on the constitutionality of the discharge itself, but the Air Force�s failure to clarify its reasoning.

Rather than return to military service, Matlovich decided to accept an honorable discharge and a $160,000 tax-free settlement. He entered the civilian world and moved to San Francisco, where he lived as ensuing events unfolded. He took a strong conservative stance during the AIDS epidemic, campaigning against bathhouse culture and creating a gay conservative organization in Washington, D.C.

In 1986, Matlovich was diagnosed with AIDS, and spent his remaining years as an activist until his death at 45 in 1988. He was given full military honors and a 21-gun salute at the Congressional Cemetery in Washington.

His tombstone sits as a memorial to all gay and lesbian service members, reading �A Gay Vietnam Veteran� in place of his name. Another famous line adorns the stone, one that echoes in the gay and military communities still today; �When I was in the military they gave me a medal for killing two men and a discharge for loving one.�

Barbara Gittings

On July 4, 1965, Barbara Gittings picketed outside the steps of Independence Hall in Philadelphia, brandishing a sign which read: �Homosexuals should be judged as individuals.�

But her work as an activist goes far beyond that first protest. More than 43 years in the civil rights movement saw Gittings make an impact on the medical, literary, and media industries. She is a founding member of the New York chapter of the early lesbian group Daughters of Bilitis and a former editor of the DOB's national magazine, the Ladder.

Her tenure at the Ladder led to a shift in values of the organization toward direct action, a concept which Gittings implemented in her struggle with the American Psychiatric Association. Gittings joined Frank Kameny in the campaign against the APA�s classification of homosexuality as a mental illness, a battle which included a rogue exhibit at the 1971 convention and participation in several APA panels. The campaign's goal was realized in 1973, when the APA�s board of trustees voted to remove homosexuality from its list of disorders.

In perhaps her most notable contribution as a pioneer, Gittings� work with the American Library Association dramatically increased the availability and proliferation of LGBT-themed works for mass consumption. The Gay Bibliography began with 37 positive titles on gay topics, and now has hundreds of titles in numerous categories. As a further step to increase LGBT visibility in literature, she also led the ALA's Task Force on Gay Liberation to present the first Gay Book Award in 1975, which was adopted as an official award by the ALA in 1986.

In 2001 the Gay & Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation honored Gittings with the very first Barbara Gittings Award for activism. Along with her partner, fellow activist Kay Lahusen, she continues her community activities and is widely recognized for all her historic efforts.

Matthew Shepard

When Aaron McKinney was awaiting sentencing for the murder of 21-year-old Matthew Shepard in Laramie, Wyoming, Shepard�s father, Dennis, asked the court to spare McKinney the death penalty and instead impose a double-life sentence without parole.

The elder Shepard said in his statement to the court: �Mr. McKinney, I give you life in the memory of one who no longer lives. May you have a long life, and may you thank Matthew every day for it.�

In the same spirit of compassion, Dennis and Judy Shepard have become noteworthy allies of the LGBT community, rallying behind hate-crime legislation across the country, and establishing the Matthew Shepard Foundation, which educates and informs the public on discrimination and on promoting diversity. The foundation also serves as the vehicle for Judy Shepard�s public speaking program, which educates individuals about the development and elimination of hate speech and behavior.

Her son has become an icon for the worldwide LGBT community and a symbol of how discrimination can undermine the very fabric which brings humanity together. Matthew Shepard cared about people, and strove for equal judgment and equality with everyone he met. According to his father, �He didn�t see size, race, intelligence, sex, religion, or the hundred other things that people use to make choices about people. All he saw was the person.�

Indeed, Shepard�s story has inspired communities of all kinds, and along with his parents, several notable individuals have commended the youth�s ideas and created numerous tributes to him. Melissa Etheridge wrote the song �Scarecrow,� a reference to the jogger who originally found the beaten Shepard tied to a fence, who at first thought he was looking at a scarecrow. Playwright Moises Kaufman wrote �The Laramie Project,� which has become a staple of American theater and spawned an HBO movie. And MTV released the film �Anatomy of a Hate Crime� followed by 18 hours of dead air, a tribute to the time Shepard spent on the fence, suffering from brain trauma, head fractures, and hypothermia.

The image of the fair Shepard has become ingrained in gay history, and the tragedy of his promising life cut short by such brutality has inspired not just a nation but a world toward hope and tolerance.

 

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